Poetry Suite by Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad

Editor Sam Preminger, Poetry, October 22nd, 2018

"I, too, have this yearning, to reach into this screen"


Poetry by Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad.

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My parents chiseled my mouth into an organ that crooned Persian,

taught me a ninth-century alphabet, told me to be patient

as I filled three circles each time to cap the letter Zh, to fill the gut

of Ch; scribbled lines disconnected, right to left, all words genderless.

They did not teach me Arabic, said God wrote a book in it just

like Persian, and that was it; all four Zs they said like Z, had to learn

on my own that scriptures challenge foreign speakers, that one

Z forces the tongue tip to vibrate against front teeth, that a second Z

is a sound released when lips break into a gasp; they did not tell me

in Arabic there is no Zh, no Ch, no P or hard G; I had to drop these letters

I spent in practice; now in holy practice I knead my mouth back

into dough orb, remold, learn the difference between the H that escapes

with exhale and the one you wrest from throat.


Nightly when I hear my father whisper The Opening, I belittle

in silence his defective oath, want to tell him, this is why we have

ended up like this, punished for the careless repetition of revelation.

Did devotion not begin with an order to Read! To Recite! each symbol

to be uttered with hallowed accuracy. But their phonetics long

crafted into permanence, so I tried to save myself, rehearsed sworn

statements, pleased with self-taught lessons, to pronounce it Th

instead of faulty Sss my parents learned from their parents, trained

my estranged voice-box to emit, hit the right notes of blessed music,

whether at dawn, noon, or dusk pressured all the pieces

of this vocal system to chant fittingly—year after year of discipline

when finally one day I come to think accent is inherited, as inflexible

as genetic material, where no mouth-washing can remove the inflection

of inborn Persian, so I unleash the wrath of resentment upon my parents

and upon theirs and even theirs and how far back in bloodline

do I cast the spell before I reach the Zoroastrians, the ancestors

who prayed in temples amid fire, performed rituals in the surrounding

heat of commanding torches; see me sway easy as my body

erupts in daily service, every burning bubble a spasm or strain,

each flame an excerpt from harrowing chapters,

fluent finally in a language God understands,

pray until I am only cinders and maybe then He will respond.

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At seven years old, she learned to thread warp and weft on loom,

weave the wool—dyed with cherry stems, walnut skin, pomegranate


rinds—loop the strings into repeating knots; in the narrow space

of a shared room in a Torbat village, she hammered yarn


with metal comb, beat the braids into pressed rows,

trimmed the pile with heavy shears, tasseled ends into fringes;


and months later, surrendered the finished carpet,

which her father hauled with the rest, hours to a city market.


And she despised every minute of this—

the next bare frame always summoned her again,


even though, like her ancestors, she knit

daydream sceneries to flee heat and monotony,


made tendrils and blossoms emerge from fabric,

like the only one that she kept for her own at twelve years old—


long after marriage relieved her of this chore—

rolled up in a storage closet at home,


the one with red peacocks around a flower medallion.

And though she never earned a single toman for any of them,


never scripted nor recited her country’s alphabet,

and foreign buyers paced and warmed their feet


over her tears and labor, in a tumbledown workshop,

near saffron fields in northeastern Iran,


she extended a two-thousand-year tradition,

unknowingly shaping textile celebrated globally.


But did she think that something

will always be nothing until it’s something to someone,


would it have salvaged her youth if she had known

her daughter would gift me these red peacocks,


if she had known at twelve years old, as she tied fleece

into burgundy feathers, that in sixty years, this very piece


would end up across the world in New York,

in the embrace of her granddaughter,


who would lift it like a tired child, slowly

to her face, not to blow away the stubborn dust,


but for the extraordinary chance to inhale

the scent of her tender hands,


if she had known I would fall in love with the stories

that unfold whenever this rug unfurls,


how I would hold it against my chest,

the fantasies that she stitched into tapestry,


if she had known, would she have she have held up her work,

displayed her splendor, with a desire to impress.

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Maman was never really affectionate, growing up

no impromptu embraces of maternal impulse

like the Amrikayee moms on television,

crossing the street she would hold my forearm

and not my hand, at bedtime no soft recitation

of a storybook by lamplight, certainly no tucking in,

and at drop-off I envied the kids who squirmed

out of their mothers’ squeeze, wiped residue

from their cheeks, and true, she would wrap me

in so many layers in the winter, I would tip over

against her waiting for the school bus, and Friday

nights without my asking she would borrow videos

from the library for me to watch, and she introduced

me to I Love Lucy and Sesame Street, and once

in her broken Engelesee she confronted my bully’s

father and then yelled at the five-year-old bully

himself, and still it wasn’t the reassurance of a hug

or a kiss, but every now and then I would hear her

on the phone, recounting an event, and the voice

at the other end would express disbelief, and so

Maman would raise her voice and add

beh jooneh Mehrnoosh! swearing to my life

like it was her only devotion, how she would turn

my name into holy testimony, calling it before God’s.

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I heard you tell the doctors that you were born with me asleep

and rustling in your gut, that it was a matter of time before I shifted

toward the opening of small curtains, to the dining area of you

to feast on your entrails; for years, I sat at this table, scooping your innards

with my soft claws, and you sat at yours with companions, at a desk,

in school or at the office, mentioning me once or twice a month to a friend,

but to yourself always muttering something to me, asking me if I was done yet;

you knew I wasn’t, but I slept when you did, chewed with my mouth closed

when you were laughing or running; you graduated and made money

as I swallowed, bolus moving down my gullet inaudible; but when you fell

in love, I fell into a coma, briefly dead still breathing, and when you woke up,

I woke up, and as you flipped your calendar, I did the same with mine,

and every day became a holiday, so I binged on marrow and tissue slowly seared

in blood, gorged on dark and white, your insides were all sides,

an endless heap I piled onto my plate, that is when you took us to the specialist,

told all your peers about my endurance; one urged you to accept my residency,

another said that I was a feral to be willed back into obedience;

you felt me move at three in the morning, nightly, you sat up to rip your hair

fistfuls while screaming when the tablets did not abort me, only altered

my pace and space, and I left the pit and moved up to the cavity of your chest,

cast a new tablecloth into the air, letting it descend and spread

across the cardiac buffet, and now you cry all the time, dig your nails

into your left breast as if you could reach in and extract the savage; listen,

do not define me by the confines of morality, I am neither vicious nor virtuous

and I cannot tell the difference between a host of evil or blessing,

I am not trying to kill you even if I am killing you, I am nothing but hungry,

like you, concerned only with surviving, and I speak these words in a tone

neither harsh nor gentle, so is it your voice that tells you about the child

whose limbs were severed by a witch doctor, your friend whose toddler

has cancer —how dare you weep, pause your routine over the gnawing

of a pulsating beast, or whatever it is that you call me, the smog, the fog,

the leech, character builder, the imbalance, the demon, the devil, the parasite—

why call me parasite when I swell into a form larger than your own, wrap your breath

like a ribbon worm; you think that if you die, I will too, but your mother,

wiping tears with her wrist over batter she stirs, not knowing how to fix this

but to keep baking another dish untouched; when you dry,

I will simply slither out of you, crack into her, this banquet will resume.

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As soon as you told me, I pictured the shape of it,

a pear inverted, a Red Bartlett, supple fruit picked


from its graceful tree, unwilling to yield. All those

rubber pleats tethered to a brilliant system for so


many years. A den, a nest, a honeycomb of smooth

muscle. A lovely sac of visceral layers, membranes


bent to an order of hormonal command. Held by

a pelvic frame, it found you at your smallest,


at your most microscopic, sheltered you in its

glutinous lining—your first room. Your mother,


she is better now after the surgery.

The danger has passed, and though it became


risk-heavy, I wish to pay it tribute, for

how it was the first part of a female to sustain you;


it stretched as far as you wished it to, widened

its walls as you grew, nourished you for months


beneath the careful stroke of anxious hands.

I touched your arm as soon as you told me,


held for a moment your neck in the curl of my palm,

knowing that the privilege of these motions


sketches directly back to it, this pouch surgeons

routinely removed in some hospital unit, must be sitting


somewhere, not even half a pound, this protective pocket

that everted, generously released you into this presence,


this contracting organ that’s not even a heart, loved you

enough to coddle you as you were gently sewn


into a breathable being; and in turn, the very reason

why each of my breaths is such a joyous thing.

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The baby’s hands—not my baby—but someone else’s

like two doughy half spheres, brown powder-ous,

almost gelatinous, almost boneless, dimples

in place of knuckles arc the back of each one,

flutter and wave erratically for that eager wish to touch,

never still, like a bunny’s paws pedaling snow,

that overwhelming softness of feather, plush,

the concentrated center of a down pillow;

in the elevated embrace of his uncle, reaches

for his face, his small fingers, nails trimmed

to smooth crescents, curl around everything he can push

into his palms, the nose, jutted of course only for his grip,

the stubble skin of each cheek he folds with firmness,

then the lips he gathers into his spongy fists,

and when his uncle tries to talk through this resistance,

the baby releases a flurry of giggles, the two of them laughing,

this exaggerated attempt at muffled speak, this baby must think,

is the best, it is the best response his palms can summon,

and he reaches again for whatever else he can collapse into his clasp,

and about this, I have read, place anything close enough

to stroke a baby’s palm, he will wrap his fingers around it,

this grasp reflex, this video clip I watch from a Subway platform

in another state; oh perfect baby: I, too, have this yearning,

to reach into this screen, to collect that same face,

as much of it as I can between my hands,

to let his breath and laughter spill and puddle in my palms,

this wanting, oh perfect baby, may you never know this ache,

may you never know this reflex unexpressed,

may that face before you always fit kindly

into your palms whenever you wish it to.

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Rabia of Basra was born un-swaddled, her navel not oiled,

poverty suckled the baby: this is how a saint comes from nothing,


a slave-master collected her, a life captive cleaning, feeding,

a mystic in the making, fasting, curled in snail shell form


worshipping. Another man pursued her, she slipped in escape,

cracked wrists, face bowed into dust, she spoke this prayer:


I am an orphan, a woman imprisoned, bones dislocated, should I praise this grief


in response she heard a voice, and Rabia learned to renounce

what is rooted, including what bliss emerged


small from rhizomes. She carried fire in one hand and water in the other,

sought to ignite paradise, quell hell ‘til it drowns.


This is how she conquered the heart of herself, invented

love for loving only, for love’s own, affection disconnected,


ego never expanded. Leave it to the bereaved to conceive

this purity, this griever prostrated below a lamp


hovering suspended by nothing, a sight

caught by the slave-master. Petrified,


he offered his service; leave it to a woman in love

to make man fear God’s wrath. Rabia declined


reparation, chose a desert. Liberated, she paced

sand dunes where disciples followed, and on these days, men


continued to trail, kneeled before her, even the Amir of Basra

begged for her hand, but Rabia retreated to barren land with a brick and mat,


swayed in solitude and sweat to the pleasure of self-denial. I know

this is a story about a saint’s devotion, but when injured


Rabia, dirt between teeth, pled to God,

He told her the angels will envy her,


but what of this world had angels seen?

An aging woman with broken hands and little water,


a woman who would not hate the devil, but elected to sidestep man,

a woman never given the chance to discern tenderness from the vicious;


these women always end up in a desert,

beneath a bronzing sun over companion, skin seared to cool


gooseflesh of caressed forearms,

inviting thirst over intimacy, finding relief


where the thickest snakes reside.

Beside her they hiss, rest and rise.


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Header image courtesy of Meagan Boyd. To view her Artist Feature, go here.

Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad is the daughter of Irooni immigrants, a worshipper of space and hyacinths, and an Oscar the Grouch apologist. Her poetry has appeared in Asian American Writers’ Workshop, The Missing Slate, and is forthcoming in Waxwing. She is the poetry editor for Noble / Gas Qtrly, and is a Best of the Net, Pushchart Prize, and Best New Poets nominee. She lives in New York where she practices matrimonial law.


Sam Preminger

Sam Preminger is a Portland-based poet. Their work has appeared throughout various publications and they hold an MFA from Pacific University.